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Sunday 22 December 2019

Luminously Liminal

What strikes you first about Liminal is not the name—that comes second—but the fact that it is a beautiful book, packed full with luminous, mysterious artwork presented on thick glossy paper. The roleplaying game is in fact a weighty, digest-sized tome that suggests heavy, even stolid game, but nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, Liminal is an urban fantasy roleplaying with light, narrative mechanics, presented in rich full colour which hints at and captures the strange place astride the familiar of the mortal and the unfamiliar of the Hidden World. Indeed, the very title suggests this, ‘liminal’ meaning ‘occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.’ Published by Worldplay Games and distributed by Modiphius Entertainment following a successful Kickstarter campaign and written by the designer of Age of ArthurLiminal is unique amongst the urban fantasy roleplaying games published to date in being set  entirely within the United Kingdom. Thus it is inspired by the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Sandman, the comic book Hellblazer, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, the television series Being Human, the film The Company of Wolves, amongst many other films and books. 

The ‘Hidden World of Liminal is one in which magic and magicians, vampires, werewolves, the fae, and many myths are real. And some in authority know. As much a rich gentleman’s club as the protector of the country from rogue magic practitioners, the conservative Council of Merlin claims origins date back to Roman times, whilst the Most Noble and Distinguished Mercury Collegium is a loose network of magicians, knowledgeable mortals, and supernatural creatures who often use magic as a means to aid their criminal endeavours. Vampires scheme and prey from behind the scenes, most belong to nests which in turn are part of the Soldality of the Crown, the parliament of vampires whose origins are as old as the Council of Merlin. Originally brought to the British Isles by the Vikings, most werewolves hunt in local packs, but the brutal Jaeger family want to unite them. The Fae vary wildly, some appear human, others lurk under bridges, but most serve one of the feuding Fae Court, typically located in a Dominion beyond this world in the Fae Realms. The most powerful Fae lords in the country are the Queen of Hyde Park, whose summer court is reached via a bridge under Serpentine, and the Winter King, whose frosty court moves anywhere between Snowdonia in Wales, the Lake District in England, and the Scottish highlands. Elsewhere, both mortals and fae worship the spirits of the rivers great and small; ghosts are the echoes of the deceased who in time may come material again or even possess the body of someone newly dead; the Aldermen protect and seek knowledge of gates into Ghost Realms, Fae Domains, and hidden crossings; and the Flowers of Expression is a community of artists—both worldly and unworldly—who accept all on artistic merit and who seek to create great art.

Two bodies of authority know something of the Hidden World and its inhabitants and secrets. One is the Order of St, Bede, a Christian order which accepts both Anglicans and Catholics and is dedicated to protecting the mundane world from magic and the supernatural and keeping it and the existence of magic a secret. Its members will use magic, but this does not stop magic from being sinful. P Division is a national agency of the British police, one that investigates inexplicable or Fortean crimes, but which never records its experiences of the Hidden World or magic lest it be revealed to press or the government. Some of its members may even know magic, but for serving officers, assignment to P Division is seen as a career dead end.

Character concepts include Academic Wizard, sponsored to Dee College at Oxford by the Council of Merlin; Changeling swapped for a human at birth by the Fae; Clued-up Criminal, aware of the Hidden World as a free agent or associate of the Mercury Collegium; Dhampir, almost a vampire, still just about human; Eldritch Scholar, perhaps sponsored by a wizard, but with an interest in the Hidden World; Face, one of the diplomats between the factions of the Hidden World; Gutter Mage who lacks the academic study wanted of the Council of Merlin, and may instead may be part of the Mercury Collegium; Investigator, perhaps members of P Division, but might also be a journalist or private detective who has stumbled across the Hidden World; Knight, the mortal servants of one of the factions, and might be lawyers or computer experts as well as soldiers; Man in Black, one of the protectors the ordinary world from the Hidden World for the Order of the St. Bede; Warden, bodyguard to a Magician for one of the factions; and Werewolf, who has undergone the initiation ritual to be able to change into wolf form. Now a player does not have to pick any one of these concepts, but can instead develop his own. What each concept does though, is suggest the possible Skills, Traits, Limitations, and Focuses that will help define a character.

A character or Liminal in Liminal is defined Concept, Drive, Focus, Skills, Traits, and Limitation. A Liminal’s Drive is what motivates him to become involved in the Hidden World, for example, ‘To find my father who was said to have run away with the fairies’ or ‘Werewolves ripped my family apart and I will seek out every werewolf and kill them’. Focus determines whether a Limininal is strong mentally or physically—Determined or Tough respectively and learn their respective Traits—or if he is a Magician and can learn different magical styles. It should be noted that although Shapechanger is listed as magical style, it only applies to magicians who can change into multiple forms, so lycanthropes such as werewolves who can only change into one, do not have to take it and so can be Determined or Tough instead. Skills represent a mix of training and natural abilities, with a skill level of two or more indicating simple professional attainment. A skill of level three or more means that it can have a speciality. Traits cover trained or innate advantages, but mundane and magical. Limitations are restrictions to or due from a Liminal’s supernatural abilities. A Liminal also has three Attributes—Endurance, Will, and Damage, the first two derived from his Athletics and Conviction skills, the latter from the means of attack used. (It should be noted though that Liminal makes clear that guns are not routinely available in the United Kingdom and that even when they are available, heavy weapons like grenades and rocket launchers simply kill their targets.) To create a Liminal, a player divides seventeen points between his skills and five points between Traits, although Limitations will add more to spend on Traits. 

Our sample Liminal is professional psychic, Neale Killough, who was orphaned at ten when his mother disappeared. She was also a psychic, but when he manifested the gift, was unable to contact her. He is convinced that she is dead and had delved further and further into the world of ghosts and the supernatural in order to find her. When not working as a psychic, he is a motivational speaker.

Neale Killough
Drive: To find out who took my mother and why?
Focus: Magician
Physical Skills: Business 1, Awareness 2
Mental Skills: Lore 2
Social Skills: Charm 2, Conviction 2, Empathy 3 (Assess Personality), Rhetoric 3 (Sincerity)
Traits: Necromancy (2), Presence (2), The Sight (1)
Endurance: 8
Will: 10
Damage: d6

Now creating a Liminal is not the only task that a player has to undertake before a game begins. In Liminal, each of the player characters, whatever their motivations or origins, is a member of a Crew which together provides them with a shared motivation, a base of operations, and some assets. So they might be a team of werewolf hunters, scientists exploring the edges of the Hidden World, a P Division team investigating crimes committed by the Mercury Collegium, and so on. Just like the Liminals themselves, the Crew will have a goal, a reason how and why it takes on cases, plus assets like a Geomantic Node, Informants, or Transport. The Crew will also have a relationship factor between itself and several of the Hidden World’s factions, either positive or negative, plus hooks which will attract the Crew’s attention. Now all of these factors are decided collectively by the players in a round-robin fashion so that everyone’s suggestions are taken into account.

Dearly Departed Consultants
Dearly Departed Consultant is a collective of psychics—some with the gift, some not—who not only perform psychic readings up and down the country, but consult on ghost hunts, hauntings, and dealings with the spirit world. It rarely performs in major venues and does not make a huge amount of money, but it gets by.

Goal: Keep people safe from the dangerous dead
Assets: Transport, Occult Library, Informants
Relationships: The Council of Merlin (-1), The Mercury Collegium (+2), P Division (+2), The Sodality of the Crown (-2), The Order of St. Bede (-1)

Mechanically, Liminal is simple. To undertake an action, a Liminal’s player rolls two six-sided dice and adds the Liminal’s skill value and any modifiers from Traits, attempting to beat the Challenge Level, typically eight, or more to succeed. Circumstances can modify the Challenge Level, such as being increased to ten for not having an appropriate skill. Failures lead either to immediate trouble for the Liminal, success but the Liminal is hurt, takes longer, or a simple failure. Rolls of double one are critical failures and add a further complication, but rolls of five or higher above the Challenge Level is a critical success. One interesting mechanic here is that when a player character makes a successful social challenge against another player character or NPC, he does not simply persuade them to do something, he levies a penalty to all tests which contradict the action he has been persuaded not to do.

A Liminal also has Will, which can be used to boost skill tests—including avoiding a critical fumble, and use various Traits and forms of Magic. For example, the Silver Tongue Trait grants a bonus to the Charm skill when being deceptive, but the magical element of the Trait means that if a magical ability or means was used to determine if you were telling the truth, then by expending a point of Will, the Liminal could avoid detection. Will is regenerated by rest or by engaging a player character’s Drive during play.

In keeping with the rest of Liminal, the combat rules are nasty, brutal, and short. A light firearm, for example, does 1d6+3 damage. Unless the player character has a lot of points invested in the Athletics skill or it is boosted by a Trait, a gunshot will not necessarily kill a player character, but it will knock him out of the fight.

Pleasingly, experience and advancement in Liminal is story driven, the player character learning directly from his experiences conducting a case. Learn something about the Hidden World or a fellow Crew member, advance the Crew goal, conclude a case, and so on, and these enable the player to tick his character’s Experience Boxes on the character. Fill five of these and the character receives a Skill increase and fills an Advance Box, and fill three of those and the character’s skill limit can be raised, he can have a new trait, and so on. It feels similar to the mechanics of Powered by the Apocalypse, but nevertheless rewards the player character according to the story and his actions.

Magic forms a major part of the Hidden World and comes in eight types—Blessings and Curses, Divination, Geomancy, Glamour, Necromancy, Shapechanging, Ward Magic, and Weathermonger. Again, the rules are kept simple, requiring no more than a successful Lore test and the expenditure of a point of Will to use. The Challenge Level for the test will vary according to what the magician wants to do and how quickly. So a Weathermonger can change the weather for several hours by expending two points of Will and making a Lore test. The Challenge test goes up by two each for making the weather turn violent, arrive quickly, or unseasonal. In addition to this base ability, a magician can have further Traits, such as Fast Working or Call the Lightning for the Weathermonger. 

More than half of Liminal is devoted to detailing the Hidden World. This starts with the sample characters, but really delves into with the information about the factions and the location descriptions. The factions are not only detailed, but often supported with sample NPCs whom the Game Master can easily add to her game. There are some fun groups and NPCs here, such as The Queen’s Service, vampires who supply blood from Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham or the mysterious ‘Werewolf’, Shad. The chapter on ‘Liminal Britain and Northern Island’ covers both the obvious places—Glastonbury, Stonhenge, and so on, and the less obvious ones—Pertmerion, the New Forest, and so on. Working down from cities, it covers towns, villages, and locations in some detail, including Belfast, Caernarfon, Canewdon, Dartmoor, Durham, the Forest of Dean, the Giant’s Causeway, Glasgow, Glastonbury, Glen Coe, Hadrian’s Wall, Highley, Hinton St. Mary, Liverpool, Loch Lomond, London, Manchester, Mount Snowdon, Mussenden Temple, the New Forest, Oxford, Peebles, Portmeirion, Saltaire, Stonehenge, Tamworth, Winchester, and York. As well as representing a diverse range of places that will nicely take a crew on and off the beaten track, there is a richness of detail here, such as Portmeirion was designed by a geomancer to prevent the incursion of a Ghost Realm, but which has partially failed following a fire or how vampires have moved to Manchester to hunt the city’s club scene. These locations are further supported by descriptions of the various types of fae, ghosts, werewolves, vampires, and mortals to be found in the Hidden World, these in addition to those included in the faction descriptions.

Rounding out Liminal, there is some excellent advice on setting up and running investigative style games  as well as advice on running the game. The Game Master is provided with extra background—on Fae Domains and Ghost Realms as well as Liminal beyond the borders of the United Kingdom—as well as outlines for two ready-to-play cases.

Physically, Liminal is a stunningly pretty looking book. The layout is clean and simple and the editing decent enough, but the choice of artwork is excellent throughout. There is a lot of it and it really captures the otherworldliness that breathes quietly from the pages and adds so much to the look and feel of the roleplaying game. This is superb looking game, not just because the artwork is good, but because it has been well chosen.

Liminal is not a roleplaying game with an other as such. There is a sense of containment to its setting of the United Kingdom and its factions, most if not actual enemies, then at least wary of each other. These factions are the major powers in the setting against which the Crew of Liminals or player characters will be set, the likelihood being that as they investigative and bring a case or mystery to a conclusion, they antagonise one faction whilst pleasing another. As a setting, Liminal feels not dissimilar to the World of Darkness with its factions of vampires, werewolves, mages, changelings, and ghosts, but here is an emphasis in Liminal on roleplaying playing mere mortals as much as there is dhampirs, changelings, werewolves, or fae. Further, Liminal slips these and its other fantastical elements into the shadows, layering them under centuries of history and mythology within the Hidden World. Of course, involvement of werewolves, vampires, and ghosts also means that Liminal is a horror game at least in tone in places, if not mechanically, so that does mean that there is a dark, mature edge to the Hidden World described within its pages.

Lastly, it should be noted that Liminal calls for increased player involvement from the start and throughout the play. This is in deciding their characters’ goals and then again if they fulfil them as well as setting up their Crew with their choice of assets, faction relationships, and hooks. In doing so, the players will actually decide some of the direction in which they want their Liminal campaign to go in, with the mechanics providing the means for them to support this with some interesting character options.

Liminal is not just an urban fantasy roleplaying game, for its takes both players and Game Master out into the wilds of the countryside too, far from the nations’ urban centres, out into the Hidden World, even as the Hidden World has slipped into those towns and cities. This enables it to provide a stronger sense of history and mythology, drawing from the British Isles’ rich swathes of legend and folklore. Liminal combines this with simple mechanics and story-based roleplaying to provide a delightfully accessible British roleplaying game and a delightfully accessible British—grim and determined—take upon the urban fantasy genre.

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